A New Era for Business Research

The call is growing louder for business schools to measure their faculty’s success less by their number of publications—and more by their real-world impact.
New Era of Business Research

IN 2013, TESLA CEO Elon Musk hit a sore spot among scholars with an offhand remark he made during an interview with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. As he explained why he pursued entrepreneurship over scholarship, Musk described academic papers as “pretty useless.” He asked Khan, “How many PhD papers are actually used by someone, ever? Percentagewise, it’s not good.”

Musk is not alone in asking about the value of academic publications. Increasingly, government officials, business leaders, and even academics themselves are wondering, who reads academic research? And does that research actually improve business practice or address social challenges?

In large part, no, says Anne Tsui, adjunct distinguished professor of management and organization at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana. “When business schools first began, we did a lot of good. We produced many theories explaining the development of industries, leadership, work design, supply chain issues,” says Tsui. “But in the 1980s and ’90s, counting journal publications became more important.”

Many business academics trace the problem back to two 1959 reports from the Ford and Carnegie foundations, each criticizing business schools for acting more like trade schools than serious academic institutions. In response, business schools poured resources into producing serious research tailored to the publication criteria of respected journals. That evolved into today’s system, where the more peer-reviewed articles faculty publish, the more they are rewarded—even if their articles are read by no one besides their colleagues. In the process, says Tsui, business and management research lost its original purpose: to solve actual business problems.

In an attempt to return business schools to that purpose, a group of academics, including Tsui, created the Responsible Research in Business & Management (RRBM) network. RRBM brings together deans, faculty, journal editors, and leaders from global accrediting bodies who want business research to do far more to influence management practice and improve society. Members believe that it will take all stakeholders, working in concert, to change the current system—and to make impact, not publication, the purpose of business research.

A SUMMIT OF SCHOLARS

On July 1 of this year, RRBM held its inaugural Global Responsible Research Summit, convening 65 administrators, scholars, and journal editors in the Netherlands. At the summit, organized by Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), researchers brainstormed on the best strategies to achieve RRBM’s Vision 2030. By the year 2030, RRBM wants business scholarship to be “central to solving society’s challenges, such as the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs).

RRBM wants to cultivate a “research ecosystem,” where schools encourage academic and social impact across their entire research portfolio of publications, grants, doctoral dissertations, and engagement efforts, explains Wilfred Mijnhardt, policy director at RSM. By following RRBM’s principles of responsible research governance, he says, “schools can finally move beyond a narrow emphasis on journal-based publications” to a broader emphasis on the value of their faculty’s real-world contributions. (See “The Impact Portfolio” below.)

Attendees at RRBM’s summit engaged in candid group discussions over how such a responsible research ecosystem could be made the norm, rather than the exception. Then, each attendee wrote a personal commitment to take one step to advance RRBM’s objectives. (See "The I Will Commitment" below.)

“It was useful to see that even people with different perspectives, whose careers are in different disciplines, face common issues,” says Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School in the U.K. and deputy editor of Academy of Management Journal. “People left energized, with a better sense of what needs to be done.”

STRIKING A NEW BALANCE

RRBM’s summit isn’t the first time academics have called for business schools to place less emphasis on journal publications. Back in 2005, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole decried academia’s move away from real-world impact in their Harvard Business Review article “How Business Schools Lost Their Way.” “It is necessary,” they declared, “to strike a new balance between scientific rigor and practical relevance.”

More recently, a 2017 report from the Academy of Management’s Practice Theme Committee (PTC), “Measuring and Achieving Scholarly Impact,” espoused a similar view. Its authors call for schools to reduce the extent to which they use publication and citation counts as a measure of a scholar’s success. “Simple counting,” they write, “rarely provides useful information.”

In 700 responses to a related PTC survey, academics indicated that management research has wielded little influence over policy, management practice, or students’ career decisions. Of ten scholars personally interviewed, five noted that a journal’s “impact factor”—which is a measure of a journal’s prestige—is itself a misnomer. Impact factors, one scholar said, “do not indicate scholarly impact, journal quality, or influence, but general acceptance.” Further, seven of the ten agreed that the greater a journal’s impact factor, “the less likely that [its] articles would be interesting or applicable to the real world.”

Another problem? Business faculty tend to prefer to study narrow, esoteric topics because such topics can seem more manageable and their solutions more attainable, says Leonard Berry, University Distinguished Professor of Marketing and the M.B. Zale Chair in Retailing and Marketing Leadership at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School in College Station.

“Professors think, ‘Poverty is too complex. It will take too long to get published,’” says Berry. “But these big problems can be addressed in business research. We just have to break them down into smaller, more digestible problems.”

Berry says that his frustration with academic culture has grown steadily over his 50-year career. “It’s a waste for talented people to work on issues of limited relevance to a limited number of people, when there are so many major problems in business and society,” he says. “We should be training our doctoral students to attack these problems. We should be attacking these problems ourselves.”

To appeal to top journals’ predilection for theoretical research, many faculty resort to what academics call “harking,” or “hypothesizing after results are known,” says Peter Bamberger, head of the organizational behavior department at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management in Israel. That is, they collect their data first and base their hypotheses on that data second—all to increase their chances of publication.

“If you’re building your study on theory, that’s fine,” says Bamberger, also editor- in-chief of Academy of Management Discoveries (AMD). “But a lot of scholars write their papers as if they came up with their hypotheses first. Most papers in management journals are based on this kind of deductive reasoning.”

This approach isn’t just unhelpful, he argues—it’s misleading. And that’s why AMD is trying to avoid the harking trend by asking scholars to submit papers based on abductive reasoning in which they observe interesting phenomena in their fields, and only then explore what their observations might mean for theory. Such research has more practical impact, simply because it is more accessible to the public, Bamberger says.

“Papers published in journals like AMD receive more media coverage than papers in more traditional journals,” he adds. “We see value in that because it broadens what we understand about management and business. More important, it’s transparent and honest.”

OUTCOMES, NOT OUTPUTS

While the current culture of “scholarship for scholarship’s sake” is driven by many forces, most RRBM members agree that the core of the problem is the promotion and tenure system in which publication count is the deciding factor in whether a professor receives tenure.

That means that the stakes for faculty are high. Professors who do not get tenure may have to switch jobs and uproot their families. With their livelihoods on the line, most professors will align their research with the path most likely to lead to tenure, rather than with work they are truly passionate about.

“There was a time that tenure was needed to protect academic freedom, but I really question whether that is true today,” says Stephanie Bryant, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer for AACSB International, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. “There are many outstanding faculty who do not achieve tenure for whom perhaps it is simply a question of the time frame allotted to publish at the level required by their institutions. Alternatively, perhaps their passion is teaching and they excel in that area. Why not offer a variety of paths of stable employment that are highly valued in academia, besides that of tenure-track research professor? Some institutions offer such paths, but perhaps more should consider alternative pathways that are equally valued.”

Mijnhardt of RSM agrees that business schools “think in very linear ways” when it comes to faculty career paths, viewing them as a progression from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor. “It’s time for us to transition our faculty models from linear career paths to more resilient career pathways.”

He believes many schools do not take full advantage of AACSB’s 2013 accreditation standards, which outline four potential career pathways for faculty—scholarly academic, practice academic, scholarly practitioner, and instructional practitioner. “Schools are not yet fully aware that they are capable of making their own diverse faculty models, instead of complying to a standard we’ve held to for the last 20 years,” he says. “Instead of maintaining the status quo, schools must dare to be different, more mission-driven.”

But first, schools must change their incentives, argues Peter McKiernan, professor of management and global MBA director at Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow, Scotland. “The most important and telling step that business schools could make would be to adjust their recruitment, promotion, and retention criteria to demand research that is both scientifically sound and of benefit to society,” he says.

Bryant emphasizes that no part of AACSB’s standards requires scholarly academics to publish a certain number of articles—only to have terminal degrees and be engaged in scholarly activity in their teaching fields. AACSB hopes to clarify that point in an exposure draft of its revised standards, which will be submitted to members for approval at AACSB International’s annual meeting in Denver in 2020. The new standards will be more explicit about the types of intellectual contributions that will be most valued for accreditation. (See “Standards in Process.”)

The new standards will make a clear distinction between “outputs” and “outcomes,” Bryant explains. “Outputs are about the number—‘I published four articles’— but outcomes are about the impact of those pieces,” she says. “We are trying to encourage people to move more toward outcomes. It’s not about the number of intellectual contributions produced. It’s about the quality of their impact.”

INGRAINED IN THE CULTURE

Another powerful force working against an impact-driven research ecosystem is the deep-seated bias among many academics against all but theoretical scholarship. There is little incentive to remove these biases from the culture, says Tony Travaglione of Newcastle Business School at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

“Faculty will favor people who look like themselves,” says Travaglione. In academia, that means someone trained in theoretical scholarship. “If someone tells an interview panel, ‘I want to change the world and make an impact with my research,’ the dean or the faculty say, ‘You’re foreign to me, so I can’t trust you.’”

Bryant of AACSB knows a colleague who spent close to 200 hours writing a teaching case on financial statement fraud that was published in a respected accounting education journal and used in many accountancy classrooms. But when she complimented her colleague on his case, he responded that his dean told him to take the work off his curriculum vitae. Such responses from school leadership, she says, send a clear signal that faculty’s pursuit of work with real-world impact does not matter.

But professors have some freedom to do what they love, says Bryant. She recalls when a colleague once advised her not to work with Beta Alpha Psi, a student honors organization. He argued that such service would hurt her career because it would take time away from her research.

In the end, Bryant was not willing to forgo work she found meaningful. “I thought hard about what I wanted my legacy to be,” she says. “Was it that I published academic articles that might not have a real impact on business and society? Or that I had a positive impact on people’s lives? I took a leap of faith to serve as international president of Beta Alpha Psi, and I never regretted it. And I attained tenure. But to get tenure, I still had to do the research.”

That begs the question: What could faculty achieve if they did not face the constraints of the promotion and tenure system? It’s something more professors are thinking about, says Newcastle’s Travaglione, who is seeing more scholars going through crises of conscience similar to Bryant’s.

“They are saying, hands on hearts, ‘I think a lot of my life has been wasted. Yes, I received millions of dollars to carry out research. Yes, my research got me to be a dean of a business school. But as I’m sitting on my rocking chair and reflecting back, what impact have I really made on the world?’

“No one,” he adds, “wants to end their lives saying, ‘I wasted students’ money, I wasted taxpayers’ money, and more important, I wasted my life doing something meaningless.’”

MOUNTING PUBLIC PRESSURE

According to RRBM, it costs a business school an estimated US$400,000 to produce a single article published in a top-ranked journal. With approximately 10,000 articles published in business disciplines in 2015 alone, that equates to more than $4 billion spent on business research. Members of RRBM argue that the return on investment for that $4 billion doesn’t add up—and government funding agencies are taking note.

In 2014, four agencies funding higher education in the U.K. established the Research Excellence Framework, or REF, which requires schools to submit case studies that demonstrate the impact of their faculty’s research on “the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.”

This year, Australia added a “national interest test” to its own research grant-giving process. Researchers must demonstrate “the extent to which the proposed research contributes to Australia’s national interest through its potential to have economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits to the Australian community.” (Read more in “Business Researchers, Have You Helped Society Lately?” by David Grant and Andrew O'Neil of the Australian Business Deans' Council.)

The Netherlands has instituted a similar effort called the Standard Evaluation Protocol, which asks Dutch universities to assess their research impact once every six years. Mijnhardt believes that assessments such as the REF and SEP provide schools with a valuable opportunity to consider what he calls their “impact narratives.” Even so, he believes governments should view impact more broadly than current assessments allow.

“Isn’t it strange that we must report our research and our impact from the same six-year period, when true impact might take ten years or more?” he asks. “These assessments would be much stronger if we reported our research from the current period, our impact from a previous period, and the future impact we expect from our most promising research. Impact should be viewed more like a wave and less as ‘input-output.’”

As these initiatives mature, they are helping academics and policymakers better understand how scholarship can serve society, says Mark Smith, a professor of human resource management and dean of faculty at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France. While France has not yet instituted its own assessment, 28 countries in the European Union have created a common fund to support research. To receive funding, academics must submit one-page statements explaining how their work will serve EU stakeholders. For example, faculty at Grenoble received funding for a project that explores how nonprofits and policymakers could help unemployed young people in 15 EU countries find jobs.

Such policies “are pressuring us for new metrics and ways of evaluating the use of government funding,” says Smith.

Smith expresses concern that this pressure is being exerted by external agencies, rather than by internal will. That’s a concern shared by Tsui of the University of Notre Dame. “If business disciplines aren’t self-regulating to ensure they’re studying real problems, somebody has to step in and tell us to study those problems,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to the stage where the funders are now prescribing what problems we should study.”

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

The question, then, is how can business schools give the world more return on its $4 billion investment? The first step, say RRBM members, is to look at the problem systemically. RRBM’s Vision 2030 imagines an academic culture where the following ideals have come to pass:

Deans encourage and reward different types of research. It’s essential that administrators take impact into account when they are evaluating faculty for promotion and tenure, says Howard-Grenville of Judge Business School. “Even if faculty have to publish in the top journals, what if they didn’t have to publish as aggressively or exclusively? What if they could write books or engage in other activities? It’s about creating communities where people feel supported in doing this kind of work,” she says. “We don’t need to blow up the whole tenure system, just expand the boundaries of what’s permissible.”

Doctoral programs train PhDs in responsible research. “We must socialize our PhD students and new recruits about RRBM,” says Smith. This includes designing workshops on responsible research, as well as building a global culture in which such research is valued.

Smith points to My Thesis in 180 Seconds, an international competition held in French-speaking countries. MT180 asks doctoral candidates to create three-minute presentations of their dissertations, with an eye for engaging the general public in their topics of study. “If you socialize new people and those most open to change to a new approach,” Smith says, “you shift the culture of an organization.”

Howard-Grenville also believes that young faculty will be “where the real change starts” because they often do not wait for permission to pursue both publication and social impact. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to do both.’”

Top journals publish a wider range of scholarship. RRBM members believe that once the editors of top journals welcome—and even solicit—responsible research, more business schools will internalize the need to produce research with more value to business and society.

Accrediting bodies promote and reward impact. RRBM members appreciate that accrediting bodies such as AACSB and the European Foundation for Management Development are increasingly addressing impact in their standards. However, RRBM would like to see these associations place even more emphasis on social impact in their conferences, training sessions, and accreditation requirements.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

Some outcomes mentioned above are already happening, although on a small scale. For example, the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing received more than 100 submissions for its special issue, “Better Marketing for a Better World.” And AMD received nearly 70 submissions for a special issue on sustainability, says Bamberger, more than double what was expected.

RRBM members argue that academics need the support of their deans and the time and encouragement to pursue impactful work. These, too, are already being offered by some schools:

  • Faculty at the Rotterdam School of Management are working on real-world initiatives, including those dedicated to improving the safety of freight transport and boosting innovation in sub-Saharan African countries. RSM also celebrates its faculty’s impact through an annual award.
  • Newcastle Business School has been inspired by problems faced by its community, says Travaglione. He points to a marketing professor who worked with local government to design a plan to conserve water in the drought-stricken region—that professor has since become a water authority in New South Wales. Another group of faculty was concerned about a spike in the suicide rate among local farmers whose crops had been devasted by the drought. They partnered with a government agency to devise ways to help local farmers cope with the crisis.
  • Last year, the University of Notre Dame formed a committee to anticipate the biggest problems society will face in the next ten years, so that the school could offer research grants addressing those problems.
  • The Mays Business School has designated three areas of impact in which it plans to invest: healthcare, energy, and entrepreneurship. “Our dean, Eli Jones, encourages faculty to work in these areas by funding research grants and holding faculty seminars,” says Berry. He adds that he feels fortunate that the school’s culture supports his own research focused on improving the experiences of cancer patients— research he chooses to publish in medical journals read by decision makers who can apply his findings in practice.
  • Judge Business School encourages faculty to publish in top journals and address social challenges. “We have worked very hard to sustain a culture where people are doing work that’s relevant, impactful, and engaged,” says Howard-Grenville. “Our faculty are publishing in top journals while also doing work that they personally feel is important. That’s because we are creating a culture that supports that.”
  • Every two months at Grenoble, faculty meet to give five-minute presentations on their work. When faculty’s work has potential for impact, the school either reduces their teaching time or lowers the number of publications they must produce.

Smith also points to outlets such as The Conversation, a nonprofit website where academics publish 1,000-word articles about their research. The nonprofit has started websites targeted to research in eight global markets: Australia, the U.K., the U.S., Africa, France, Canada, Indonesia, and Spain. It boasts 10.7 million users worldwide and reports that, in 2018, articles on the U.S. site were read more than 95 million times.

These articles, says Smith, “are written in a way that’s accessible to your grandma or somebody you might meet on the bus or the train—somebody who’s not an academic. If faculty are able to explain to nonacademics what they do, they’re halfway to having an impact.”

As far as Smith is concerned, asking faculty to shift their mindsets doesn’t mean they’ll have to do more work—just a different kind of work. “Within the idea of impact, there’s so much opportunity,” he says. “Once faculty have written that long article, converting it to something accessible is not such a big task, and it’s rewarding as well. We’ve had people on The Conversation whose articles have had hundreds of thousands of views. Most of the articles they write for academic publications might never even see views in the hundreds.”

‘WE HAVE CONTROL’

In an effort to create a collective culture of impact, RRBM is developing its own badge program for academic papers. Journal editors would invite authors with accepted papers to submit a paragraph describing the impact of their work. An evaluator would review each paper and decide whether the badge should be awarded. Members of the committee working on the program hope that at least half a dozen journals will be using the RRBM impact badge title page by next summer, says Berry.

Whether through badges for impactful research or simply general acceptance, Smith expects responsible research to become a mainstay of business school culture. If that happens, he adds, academics who base their professional success on counting journal publications—let alone “pretty useless” scholarship— will soon be relics of the past.

“I think it will become a requirement for faculty to share and disseminate their work,” he says. “Schools don’t want to be stuck with faculty who can do only the four-star articles and cannot talk to a wider public.”

For McKiernan of Strathclyde Business School, the fact that RRBM has mobilized so many academics to promote responsible research is an incredible achievement in and of itself.

“The problematique is ‘writ large’ in our community, and no one business school can pull off this global transformation,” McKiernan emphasizes. “B-schools need to work together, as well as with publishers, employers, government agencies, and local stakeholders, to avoid deceleration and backtracking.”

Tsui of Mendoza College doesn’t think it will be easy to overcome the obstacles to responsible research that are so prevalent in business school culture, but she does see one advantage. These obstacles are largely self-imposed. “Nobody from the outside has created the system we now have,” she says. “The beauty of our system is that we have control. We created the problem, so we can change it. Nobody can stop us. We can only stop ourselves.”

Learn more about RRBM and read its position paper outlining seven principles of responsible research.


This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

 

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